[map]A Technology Pattern from
Patterns for Personal Web Sites

Appropriate Format

Each document format balances strengths and weaknesses.

  • Text is easy to read and edit, but plain.
  • HTML adds hyperlinks and media, but doesn't print well.
  • PDF documents print well, but are hard to edit and to read online.

The more complex the format, the harder it is to read and manipulate, and the smaller your audience.

Therefore, use a format appropriate to your goal.

If your goal is to make a research paper available for online reading, offer it in HTML. If you want to offer a printable version, then offer it in a format designed for printing (e.g. PDF or Postscript). If you want to satisfy both of these goals, don't expect one to do the job of the other. Offer both formats.

The most appropriate format is often the simplest. Using the simplest format has benefits that aren't immediately obvious:

  • Ease of maintenance. The simpler the format, the easier it is to maintain. Fixing a spelling error in a plain text file is easier than fixing an error in a PDF, or an image of text.

  • Accessibility. A blind person can use text-to-speech software on a plain text file, or an HTML page. Does such software exist for PDF or Postscript documents?

  • Searchability. The simpler the format, the more easily searched. Search engines indexed HTML pages for years before they started to index PDF files.

  • Serendipity. There are more uses for material you make available than you can imagine. For example, the text of Moby-Dick can be fed into phoneme analysis software to evaluate Hawthorne's influence on Melville's prose.

The simpler the format, the more flexible it is; the more flexible, the greater the value.

There are situations where the simplest format is not the best. It's possible to create mathematical formulae using formatted ASCII text, but if your document is meant to be printed by research mathematicians, LaTeX or PDF would be a better format.

Last updated 8 July 2003
All contents ©2002-2003 Mark L. Irons